A couple of months ago I did a support workshop for a group of middle school and high school girls. From the moment the 90 minute workshop began I was in complete awe by their intellect and maturity. As always, like with every group, I end up learning from the audience perhaps more than they learn from me.
One thing they mentioned that truly struck me, something that took me years to conclude, and I wanted to elaborate on is that people feel supported differently. Just like we communicate love differently, we also accept and communicate support differently. Some people feel supported with an Instagram like or a smile, while others might need you to stay up with them until 3 AM six days a week to talk. Regardless of what we accept as support we are entitled to feel supported all the time. But we also need to be able to communicate that.
I have never been able to communicate how I feel supported. For years, I was the individual that was there for individuals, whether it's during the day or at 3 AM because you've lost your way, I was there. Growing up I had to always be there for my sisters, and then in college for not only my friends but my residents, and finally the employees I supervised. I would've dropped everything during those days, and regardless of what you needed I would be there.
But I didn't think I needed anyone's help. I wanted to be my entire support system. Even when things started falling apart, as Depression came back into my life and PTSD was ignited, I didn't think anyone would help. People found out about my problems months after they were over, or after they had spiraled out of control and only professionals could help. I still held it against them, because I believed they weren't there for me. But when a friend wakes up with PTSD at 3AM suicidal and you had no idea they were going through anything at all how could you know how to support them?
I didn't trust anyone with my secrets, and I was never vulnerable enough to allow friends and family to support me. I expected them to know what I was going through without ever having to open up to them. Then, when things got really bad, I felt entirely alone because there was no one supporting me.
So I pulled back even more, because obviously I didn't want to be around unsupportive friends. The reality though was that I supported in the only way I knew how, but it wasn't the type of support they needed, and they didn't support me in the way that I needed to be supported, causing both sides to feel alone despite our efforts.
I didn’t have a name for what I went through as a child. Everyone called it being shy, but I was not shy, I was terrified, and as the days went by my terror of others not only grew but it spread to terror of myself.
I didn’t have a name for what I went through in middle school and then in high school. It was called a phase by everyone I knew. I was called spoiled, I was called demanding, and I was called the worst of things because I locked myself in my room every day for days at a time, for months, and then eventually those days and months turned into years. But it was a phase, I was shy, and I was hateful.
Finally, I knew what to call the urge to throw myself in front of a moving vehicle and from ledges. But it didn’t matter, it was still called a phase, an internal dilemma that was part of who I am. I became the newly named illness, and after years of dying, and screaming for help, I gave up on everyone.
For a time I’d call those closest to me monsters lacking empathy to a struggling soul. They in turn saw me as an individual that was unreachable. Because in their own way, they had tried. They had given me the space they perceived I needed. They had given me the time to heal. They had accepted me as they thought I was. Not everyone cared, some of my perceptions were right, and some were wrong.
Over the years, my perception of support and the ways I communicate and accept it have caused problems with nearly every relationship I've had over the last two decades, and it wasn't until I became a Peer Support Specialist that I started asking what kind of support would you like? I also had to reflect about exactly what kind of support do I want, how can I communicate it, and how can I show my gratitude for it?
For me, I am grateful for the smiles and good mornings, I am grateful for individuals that genuinely want to know how I'm doing. I am over the moon when someone likes something on my site, or one of my various projects, and don't get me started about them sharing it. We're constantly told that social media is a distraction, and it is to an extent, and I definitely don't get my worth for my life from it, but it's a great feeling knowing someone is supporting something that means the world to you. My writing, my words, mean alot to me, and I am grateful for every like, love and share. I am grateful for any feedback and everything in between. Recently I completed a 3 month long social media campaign. I didn't have a ton of followers, but I loved every single one of the individuals that stood by me and supported me, whether I knew them or not.
I want people to genuinely care when they ask how I’m doing, and to accept that some days I’ll have real answers and other days I don't want to talk about it.
I still struggle in communicating and accepting the right support from others, but that stems more from a place of ignorance about my own life rather than a place of denial. Whether it’s feeling love, support or anything else, we’re conditioned from childhood to accept them in certain ways. Unfortunately, many of our childhoods are plagued with abuse and abandonment, and as we go through life the forms of love and support that we felt during those difficult times might only be replicated by reliving those forms of abuse. Unless we decide to change that.
It’s not an easy task, but it’s a path to feeling these emotions that leave us so bare and empty when they’re not in our lives. The reality is that love and support, like many things are choices. We do not fall in love, or stumble into support. We must choose to love. We choose to support. Does it not make sense then that we get to choose to feel loved or supported? Again, this is not always easy, but it does work. We communicate love and support in ways we’re conditioned to, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn new languages and accept others forms.
The World does not owe us anything, but we owe it to ourselves to learn to support and love ourselves in the way that we understand.
To begin understanding the language of support you speak ask yourself the following six questions.
What actions make you feel empowered?
What actions make you feel listened to?
What actions make you feel validated?
What actions make you feel connected?
What actions make you feel worthy?
What actions make you feel accepted?
Then ask yourself am I seeing these actions in my everyday life? Do I want to see them? What can I do to communicate these needs? What can I do to build off them?
We are defined by our choices, it might be time to include love and support into our definitions.
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Ahmad Abojaradeh is the Co-Founder and Director of Mental Health for MCL, An Engineer, a world traveler, a Peer Support Specialist, a Novelist and the founder and editor of Life in My Days. He hopes to spread awareness of living a life of wellness through his writing, workshops and speaker events.